The Competition for Security Roles in Central Asia

2 march 2008

Ivan V. Safranchuk - Senior Fellow, Institute of International Research, MGIMO University;

Associate professor, National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

SPIN RSCI: 9754-1094

ORCID: 0000-0003-2214-6628

ResearcherID: O-3257-2017

Scopus AuthorID: 57193867458


Institute of International Research, MGIMO University

Office 319, 76 Vernadsky Prospect, Moscow, Russia

National Research University–Higher School of Economics

20 Myasnitskaya Str., Moscow, Russia

Resume: The talk about the SCO’s anti-American stance did not spring out of nothing. The organization openly pursues the goal of doing without the U.S. in resolving all challenges facing Central Asia. While it does not seek to oppose Washington either globally or regionally, the SCO does not want any links with Washington either. This means it wants to get along without the U.S., but not go against it.

Russia has clearly demonstrated to its partners and competitors over the past few years that it considers the space of the former Soviet Union as part of its zone of interests. Moscow kept speaking about the Commonwealth of Independent States in the 1990s as a foreign policy priority as well, but it did little in practice to enforce those statements. That is why Putin’s publicized ambitions to intensify Russian policy in the CIS did not draw much attention at the beginning. However, the past six years have shown that Russia is prepared to take real steps toward protecting its interests in the post-Soviet space, above all in Central Asia. This policy has become necessary because of Russia’s security problems and economic considerations. An intensification of CIS policy also reflects a fundamental change in Russia’s overall stance on foreign policy.


The current situation can be characterized as the coexistence and competition of two essentially different approaches to foreign policy, which may be conventionally called ‘the Primakov doctrine’ and the ‘liberal empire concept.’

The Primakov doctrine proceeded from the assumption that the Soviet Union played an active role in forming international law and was, to a significant extent, a beneficiary of that law. That is why Russia, as the country that inherited all of the Soviet Union’s positions in this sphere, stands to benefit from international law, especially if one considers Russia’s present weakness and that it is not prepared for “brawling outside the legal format.” The doctrine implies that Russia does not feel capable enough of defending its national interests openly and, quite possibly, is even unable to formulate them clearly. That is why Moscow should wait for better times under the shield of international law.

This approach was never laid out in writing, nor was it ever precisely verbalized. But it was exactly this logic that showed through Russia’s foreign policy in the second half of the 1990s when Primakov was foreign minister and later prime minister. Strenuous diplomatic efforts were also made then to keep the U.S. and NATO within the format of law.

The ‘liberal empire concept’ was aired in 2003 by Anatoly Chubais, CEO of Russian energy monopoly Unified Energy System. In a nutshell, it suggests that Russia simply has no other choice than to expand its economic and political influence in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, it should not act as a tyrant or hegemon but, on the contrary, it should serve as a source of progress and a guarantor of human rights. Such a policy embodies Russia’s national mission through which it should realize its national interests.

There is an entire spectrum of diverse outlooks and opinions in between these two positions.

The Primakov doctrine can be seen much more in declarative politics today, while the liberal empire concept is present in practical politics. As a result, one might get the impression that Moscow lacks consistency. This is evidenced in the growing flow of accusations with “double standards” – a phrase that Moscow itself used quite often as a diplomatic tool in the 1990s.

Russia still lacks the resolve to drop the image of a “peace-loving” country and to switch from general discussions about international law to open protection of its interests. This could be partly explained by the poor ability of the Russian bureaucratic machine to formulate clear doctrines.

One way or another, the idea that came into existence under the “liberal empire” motto is winning over an increasing number of politicians (especially as more and more people forget about its controversial author and as greater emphasis is put on the second element of the notion). At the same time, the Primakov doctrine is gradually losing ground in spite of support by many professional diplomats.


Russia has initiated four projects: the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Three of them tackle security problems. Moscow hoped to gain efficacious mechanisms of coordination and cooperation in implementing collective decisions as these organizations were being set up. Russia needs instruments to implement its policy, and these four institutions provide levers of impact over various functional and geographic areas. Their stated goals may sometimes overlap as they were created at different periods of time and in different political situations, but generally these organizations pursue different objectives. Russia tries to sort out their zones of responsibility, but is still unable to do so completely. For instance, virtually all of them except EurAsEC have the same governing bodies (see Table 1).

Source: Table compiled by the author

The Commonwealth of Independent States does not have any distinct formulated goals, and many experts have for a long time started describing it as a kind of divorce following the breakup of the Soviet Union. However, another definition seems to be more exact – “the club of First Secretaries;” that is, a club made up of territorial leaders of the Soviet Communist Party, who took the reins of power either when the former Soviet republics were gaining their independence or soon after the short-lived rule of local popular fronts.

The main problem of the CIS lies in its inability to transform itself into something greater. As “the First Secretaries” gradually leave the political arena, their successors are losing interest in the organization and are beginning to distance themselves from it. This tendency applies equally to the explicitly pro-Western presidents – Ukraine’s Victor Yushchenko and Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili, and to such leaders as Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Furthermore, it also applies to Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who could have become a perfect “First Secretary,” but still he had never been one.

The CIS’s limited spectrum of functions was one of the reasons for setting up the CSTO and EurAsEC. The Commonwealth had turned into a safe haven for countries not ready yet to join the CSTO and/or EurAsEC and undersign certain obligations or simply reluctant to do so at all.

The CIS has kept three projects pertaining to security in the Central Asian region – peacekeeping, the unified Air Defense System, and the Antiterrorist Center. However, parallel agencies have appeared in other formats as well. The CSTO has set up a united Air Defense System and considered a peacekeeping agency of its own, while the SCO has established a regional antiterrorist structure.

Security projects (the Antiterrorist Center, the common Air Defense and peacekeeping) under CIS auspices will not be shut down, but there will not likely be either a broadening or intensification of CIS operations in the security field.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization grew out of successful cooperation among five countries in delimitating the state borders between them. A Shanghai Quintet was formed in 1996, and the countries transformed the organization into the SCO in 2001 and included Uzbekistan. Security issues were given priority when the participating countries formulated the SCO’s goals, but soon after that the scope of their interests broadened – under some influence from China.

Now the SCO positions itself as a Euro-Asiatic organization of a universal type. Its inter-departmental councils are mushrooming and their activity embraces an ever-greater scope of problems, as they de facto replicate CIS agencies with a similar status. The SCO’s economic component will be growing at ever-increasing rates, but security issues will naturally remain on its agenda as well. The forum has shown its readiness to assume responsibility for security in Central Asia and for the region’s general development.

The SCO has its own position toward the U.S. Many in the West view this organization as an “anti-American union,” but the veracity of this assessment can be doubted merely due to the fact that India and Pakistan – the two countries that are not adversaries of the U.S. in any way – have an observer status in the SCO.

And yet the talk about the SCO’s anti-American stance did not spring out of nothing. The organization openly pursues the goal of doing without the U.S. in resolving all challenges facing Central Asia. While it does not seek to oppose Washington either globally or regionally, the SCO does not want any links with Washington either. This means it wants to get along without the U.S., but not go against it. The SCO is rather interesting as a model of relationship with a superpower. There are other institutions in addition to the SCO that stand outside the American context, but these are institutions with which the U.S. itself is not really interested in contacts or cooperation. The situation is different with America’s interest toward the SCO, yet the “Shanghaians” show reluctance for such contacts. At the same time, a dialog between the SCO and the European Union seems quite possible.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization. Vladimir Putin’s administration came up with an initiative at CIS summits in Minsk and Bishkek in 2000 to fortify the Collective Security Treaty. The initiative followed armed clashes in Kyrgyz mountainous regions in the summers of 1999 and 2000. It was the first time that the signatories of the treaty needed to pool their efforts for joint military operations. This experience and its analysis paved the way for attempts to breathe new life into the treaty, and these efforts led to the creation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2002 and 2003 (the documents were signed in 2002 and took legal effect in 2003).

It is important that the organization was not set up from scratch and this factor influenced its structure and functioning. The CSTO combined disconnected elements that came into existence between 1992 and 2001 under different conditions and for various purposes. It was a real uphill battle to bring all the elements together. Graph 1 shows the organization’s structure, with indications of the years when its elements were created. The initial goal of the CSTO was to coordinate the activity of a number of regional units that were already in existence by 2002, including the East European Allied Forces (Russia and Belarus), the Caucasus Allied Forces (Russia-Armenia), and the Collective Rapid Deployment Force for Central Asia. Their convergence was legally formalized in the Protocol on the Formation and Functioning of the Forces and Facilities of the Collective Security System of Collective Security Treaty Signatory Countries. It was signed in Yerevan in 2001.

In terms of chronology, Russian-Armenian structures were the first ones to appear and their initial objectives were to patrol the Armenian-Turkish state border. The formation of the Russian-Belarusian Allied Forces helped promote military cooperation that began after the start of NATO’s eastward expansion in 1997 and gained momentum after the alliance’s attacks on Yugoslavia. The emergence of the forces was part of a plan for building the Union State of Russia and Belarus, and thus it depended heavily on political relations between Moscow and Minsk.
In both cases the allied forces had to contain the external threat and their establishment was part of the process of providing mutual military aid. The sides preferred using the legal multilateral format of the Collective Security Treaty and fitting bilateral relations into it rather than signing a new agreement. The latter fact made it possible to bring all these elements together under the umbrella of a single organization.

The actions of the allies were initially coordinated through the Council of Defense Ministers and the Committee of Secretaries of (National) Security Councils, both set up in 2000 when the Collective Rapid Deployment Force for Central Asia did not exist yet. Later, these structures were integrated into the revamped Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Given the CSTO’s eclectic nature, the political and legal interaction of all of its elements requires much effort, which in turn makes it necessary to have efficient procedures in place for endorsing and implementing decisions.

The CSTO was perceived at first as an organization built on the Russian military platform (personnel training, provision of Russian weaponry and defense technologies, and joint exercises) – or, in other words, as a military organization. However, it was quickly decided to transform it into a universal security institution. The CSTO views its zone of responsibility today as one that embraces both traditional and new threats (for instance, it organizes the annual operation Kanal [Channel] to curb drug trafficking).


The zones of responsibility of the SCO and CSTO overlap considerably from the functional and geographic points of view. Five of the CSTO’s seven member-states are also members of the SCO. Five of the six member-states of the SCO are simultaneously members of the CSTO. However, this overlapping does not make relations between the two entities any easier. It would be much more correct to speak of covert and dangerous competition that the two organizations are getting drawn into.

The CSTO stands to lose more from this competition since it is more likely that the SCO will be able to resolve more issues of security with much greater efficiency, and especially the issues falling into the group of so-called new threats. This will reduce the CSTO to the level of running the common Air Defense System, training personnel and supplying Russian weapons to other member-states. In essence, it will change into a defense organization with limited responsibilities.

Some of the countries that are members of both organizations will definitely be glad to see the CSTO weaken and the SCO gain strength, while others will be alarmed by an excessive change in the balance in favor of the “Shanghaians.”

The intricate relations between the CSTO and the SCO are an open secret, as contacts have been tense for the past several years between their secretariats. Some steps were made toward resolving the frictions in 2007. SCO member-states decided at the organization’s Bishkek summit conference to coordinate activities between the SCO and the CSTO. As a result, Secretaries General Nikolai Bordyuzha (CSTO) and Bolat Nurgaliyev (SCO) signed a joint document in Dushanbe in October 2007. It does not say anything about “coordination” though, and is titled Memorandum of Understanding Between the Secretariat of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This title amply reflects the main positions and intentions of the two groups of countries.

The Memorandum featured an agreement among the parties to exercise cooperation between their secretariats, invite each other’s representatives to various events, design joint programs and organize joint events. These forms of cooperation embrace virtually all spheres of activity. However, it is an open question how cooperative ties between the two secretariats will develop in the future and what they will bring about in practical terms. Two scenarios are possible here.

First, the CSTO and the SCO may view the Memorandum as an agreement on peaceful coexistence and non-interference in each other’s affairs. In this case, they will have to somehow mark off the functional zones of responsibility, which is a difficult thing to do, as neither organization will drop parallel security projects. However, the Memorandum makes a reservation for this parallelism.

Under the second – and most plausible – scenario, the CSTO and the SCO will keep their parallel projects, but will coordinate their plans to avoid open conflict. In essence, this will give China access to how the CSTO drafts its plans and makes decisions. However, one of the main specific features of the CSTO is that its operations do not encompass China, and if Beijing gets access there (and this access will expand as long as cooperation increases up to joint programs and events), will there be any sense in the existence of two identical institutions? This does not mean that the CSTO will formally disappear, but it will run the risk of repeating the plight of the Western European Union – a defense organization that lost practical sense after the formation of NATO. 

Some of the countries that are members of both organizations are interested in competition between them. While some would like to balance off Russia’s influence in the CSTO by their own participation in the SCO, others are seeking to neutralize China’s influence in the SCO through participation in the CSTO. However, both organizations clearly do not want open competition, but this competition can only be avoided at the expense of one of the organizations. Right now it looks like the CSTO will be making step by step concessions to the “Shanghaians.” Decisions on cooperation will not get rid of the concerns of the CSTO Secretariat. Moreover, they might even play against it, as they will provide the Chinese with instrumental access to the organization.

However, much will depend on the amount of influence that China has over the SCO. One often comes across a widespread opinion in the media and among Western experts that the SCO is a “Chinese organization,” but this is not the case. Beijing has veto power in the SCO at the moment implying that no decision can be made that runs counter to its interests. Yet the Chinese do not have freedom of action, and thus the organization cannot deal with all the tiny wishes that it might get. The role of the SCO Secretariat will continue to grow (for instance, its Secretary General got the status of an executive in 2007) and it may eventually begin to take more and more unaffiliated positions. That is why much will depend on the Secretary General. A Kazakh official will occupy the post for another two years and then it will go to a Kyrgyz, a Tajik, and a Russian, each to hold this post for three years. The secretariat might prefer not to aggravate relations with the CSTO, and peaceful coexistence, as well as equal cooperation, would be quite possible by then.

Last updated 2 march 2008, 14:37

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